I had just started writing a blog entry on the state of the union address (which deals mostly with the widespread discomfort, or suffering – if I can use that word, of the American people), when I came across news of a new biography written about Pope John Paul II. After reading the news article, I tried to go back to writing about politics and the economy, but just couldn’t avoid giving a short commentary instead on the new book "Why he is a Saint: The True story of John Paul II"
It is not my intention to cause controversy, I am not particularly interested in politics per sae, and I know this blog does not have a focus on religion as such, but since I could not avoid either politics or religion in today’s news, I thought this would be a nice break from the “hyper” coverage of the Apple iPad – although I respectfully tip my hat to Mr. Jobs for being a visionary product engineer, and PR genius – I have to confess I want an iPad.
I will probably be crucified by my staff for putting this on a blog about clean-tech and media creation – come what may, I think everyone can relate to it in some way or another. That aside, I ask Catholics to forgive me in advance, if I say anything that is offensive, please understand it is mostly out of ignorance.
For 2.1 billion Christians worldwide (about 1 in 3 people on earth), the time of Easter, the most important feast day of the year, is quickly approaching. Incidentally, this feast, unlike the second largest feast day of the ecclesial year (Christmas), involves some unpleasant events in history. As Americans we have varying notions of what this aspect of Christian belief means, for example, reform Christians (the largest group in the US) in particular, don’t like to focus too much on the unpleasant aspects of the historical events. However, we are fortunate that in recent popular culture, we have been presented with at least one good, historically accurate account of the Easter event, which hopefully is still fresh in our collective consciousness, in the popular movie “the Passion of the Christ”.
First, let me say that it seems to me that Pope John Paul II is a saint, by all measures of sainthood. He was a beautiful man by all appearances, and touched the lives of millions. That having been said, I am concerned about the particular practice cited in the biography of his life – self-flagellation, cited widely by the mainstream media today, and commensurate reactions of the reading public. I do not intend to cast judgment on the Pope, but rather to analyze critically the commentary given in explanation of this new information as we read it in the media. It also stands out from the rest of the news article we typically find online, and thus I felt it more interesting and challenging to write about.
A loosely formed argument
I venture to say, that this particular, uniquely ”Western-Christian” practice, may not be the most accurate, or healthy understanding of “Sacrifice” (I would have put here “self-sacrifice”, only I’m not sure any distinction can be made, or that there is any other legitimate form). I decided to try to tackle the issue today, because bringing meaning from discomfort (or suffering – though this term is distinctly unpopular in our consumer society), is very much so on the minds of millions of Americans, indeed it seems to be at the heart of what President Obama wanted to say in his first “State of the Union address”.
I found most of the rationale for the practice cited in the news articles lacked sound scriptural references, and consisted mostly of inductive reasoning, which to the uncritical reader, might pass as “good-enough" explanations. There seemed to be a casual interchange between suffering which is a part of a life “honestly lived” as such, or that which stems from a rather “high” calling such is the concept of martyrdom, and that which is simply engineered (or self-inflicted). For the casual reader, these arguments stand, because an adequate familiarity with historical events and practice may be lacking.
Most would agree the goal of a pious Christian life (catholic or otherwise), is to lead a life that emulates that of Jesus (the archetype) as closely as possible (failure almost inevitable), certainly the role of the bishop, or Pope (in traditional Christianity) fills this function. Therefore, in the media presentation of the subject biography, the suffering of Jesus is presented as the primary justification in discussions of self-inflicted discomfort – an argument held together rather loosely. The problem with this argument of course, is finding any instance of Jesus inflicting discomfort on himself (in the canonical accounts of his life, or any other secular history of his life).
That is not to say that he did not suffer, as the aforementioned motion picture, so accurately recounted, or as the historical records tell us. The difference is, he “accepted” suffering, but did not seek it out, let alone engineer it – that’s a rather large, even if subtle difference. Indeed, it appears by all accounts, had there been a choice, He would have liked very much so to have avoided discomfort altogether.
Other references are made in the news articles to self-flagellation being analogous to fasting (as a form of self-deprivation, leading to discomfort). But this argument depends in large part on your understanding of “fasting”- a practice widely used by all the world’s major religions (and sports teams for that matter). Generally speaking, fasting, in our western mindset is understood to mean the “giving up” of something, or sacrifice. But there exists an alternate understanding of fasting which is not widely known in our contemporary western mindset, and that is the concept that fasting, may alternately be viewed as a form of simple self-discipline, and preparation.
For example, if an Athlete chooses to eat healthy foods, a well balanced diet, and eliminate say, “Prime Rib” from his diet, will he necessarily feel he is “sacrificing”, though he may enjoy Prime Rib? I think it is likely he will feel instead that he is merely being “disciplined”, which not only improves his athletic performance, but also his overall health. In that sense, he is in control of his body, rather than inflicting a sacrifice of discomfort on himself, an activity which he may come to like very much, and indeed in some little time, may come not to miss “Prime Rib” whatsoever, and prefer so much so his improved athletic performance and general feeling of healthiness, that the idea of being free of a passion for “Prime Rib” will be nothing short of desirable.
The activities of fasting and causing discomfort to ones own flesh, may upon a cursory review appear to be closely related, but upon more critical examination, is revealed as a pure “straw-man” argument.
There exists a historical precedent, which pre-dates the western notion, and in my mind is a more authoritative understanding of fasting which propounds precisely this. The later notion that fasting is paramount to physical discomfort insofar as it constitutes suffering of some kind is a later innovation of western theology, and thus, as grounds to somehow rationalize self-flagellation must be dismissed. The accounts taken from the life of Jesus, once again used as precedent must also be dismissed, as from what we know; Jesus often forfeited the official days of fasting within the context of his religion (and any related discomfort) in preference to spending quality time with his friends, or healing the sick, both of which he found superior in importance to fasting.
While the initial divorce from a passion for something which we are better off without may indeed lead to discomfort at first, that discomfort stems from the election of what is positive and affirmative in nature, and involves a very different intellectual activity then the initiation of discomfort with no natural, positive derivative (such as self-flagellation). Ironically, by expecting enduring happiness to come from “things” we perpetrate upon ourselves, a sort of “consumer-grade, self flagellation” with fast and loose credit serving as the whip.
Why should I care about this?
The brilliant contemporary psychologist M. Scott Peck begins his masterful work “The Road Less Traveled” with the simple statement;
“Life is difficult.
This is the great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matter.
Most do not fully see this truth that life is difficult. Instead they moan more or less incessantly, noisily or subtly, about the enormity of their problems, their burdens, and their difficulties as if life were generally easy, as if life should be easy. They voice their belief, noisily or subtly, that their difficulties represent a unique kind of affliction that should not be and that has somehow been especially visited upon them, or else upon their families, their tribe, their class, their nation, their race or even their species, and not upon others. I know about this moaning because I have done my share….”
The first part of the book, form which this is taken, is appropriately titled “Discipline”
There are perhaps only two people to have made the statement more succinctly: “The Buddha” who taught the first of the “four noble truths” is that “Life is Suffering” and “The Man in Black” from the “Princess Bride” when he says: “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something…”
Because our notions of the meaning of our existence is at stake, and perhaps also our mental well being – we really want to make sense of our discomfort – and as with most things – knowledge is power.
In the US, we suffer from a sort of bifurcated consciousness, when it comes to issues of suffering, deprivation and pleasure. This is largely informed by a) latent puritanical ideas that stem from the religious exiles who became the early settlers of our nation, and their related ideas about austerity (still present today in the Mennonite and Amish communities) and b) by Madison Ave. marketers who will deftly use any message (usually sexual), even malevolence, if it improves product sales. The result – a person raised in this environment can be highly confused about their beliefs resulting form two utterly contradictory influences coexisting in the same society – and neither well balanced. At once in the same time uncomfortable with a natural sense of self, including body images etc. – the marks of pious, puritanical notions about the body, and at the same time lacking in all physical self-discipline (the fruits of Madison Ave).
Now if that is the environment in which a conception of “Christian piety” is presented, which is not wholly accurate, or healthy, the results could be disastrous. What message does it send? In a society that has already closed the door on the core historical components of their own faith heritage, we ought to be very careful about what we attempt to justify.
Generally speaking in the US, we have efficiently discredited traditional Christianity, particularly ascetic (or monastic) practices, without first having a full or complete understanding of what it really is, receiving instead partial information, which handily lends itself to profound misunderstandings. To my amazement, at the same time a tremendous movement has evolved to embrace precisely the same sort of practices as they appear in oriental religions as witnessed by our general preoccupation with all things “Buddhist” or having to do with wisdom traditions in general (often under the guise of “new age” movements).
It seems we can safely conclude that for many, a life honestly lived, in the truth, means suffering or discomfort, and that in response to this reality, we ought to exercise some form of discipline over our lives (rather than inflict further discomfort upon ourselves). There are opportunities enough to bring meaning from suffering which occurs naturally, or for some, as an allowance from a higher being. We are a fragile society and culture, reeling from seismic changes in our economy and our general way of life. We struggle to make sense from the changes that come relentlessly at us. We have programmed ourselves to seek emotional satiation in consuming, and thus have attached “discomfort-avoidance” to “things”, which invariable works for a little while, but always falls short, no matter how shiny and new they are. In an environment, where “things” are less and less in reach for many, a suitable systems of answers needs to be presented, less we fall into despair over our situation, yet it is at that same moment, that a misinterpretation, or a half truth, stands to do much harm to a society which has nearly completely discarded the practical implications of their own cultural and religious heritage.